Bruins Impress at the NFL Combine

Datone Jones is projected to be a first round pick, and is one of six Bruins the NFL had its eyes on at the Combine. - USA TODAY Sports

Six Bruins took part at the NFL Combine and showed why they are good to great prospects to play on Sundays.

The NFL Combine just wrapped up and it was a good weekend for U.C.L.A. Six Bruins: Jeff Baca, Joseph Fauria, Johnathan Franklin, Arron Hester, Datone Jones, and Jeff Locke were invited to Indianapolis for the Combine. The six Bruin invites was tied for the most by any Pac-12 school.

Coach Mora started the props early:

Great to see the coaching staff continuing to support our players. Bruins for life.

While the Combine has become a bit overrated, in my opinion, with individual play on game tape getting a bit overshadowed by numbers and measurements, it is still an important opportunity for those who excel and can be a pitfall for those who flail. The majority of players probably don't change their draft prospects significantly, but a few on the ends of the spectrum will catch notice, one way or the other. Fortunately for our Bruins, everyone looked either as expected or better, so each of our players at the least helped himself with his performance.

Players are graded , with the grades roughly reflecting how scouts see them projecting as NFL prospects, with 50-69 being draftable, 70-84 eventual starter and early round (2-3) pick, 85-95 first rounder, and 96+ being a can't miss top pick (like JaMarcus Russell).

Here's a quick look at each of our Bruins, their overall grades, and what people are saying about them.

Jeff Baca, Offensive Line - Overall grade: 59.75

Baca impressed scouts at the combine with his speed and agility. He was tops among linemen in the three cone drill (7.26 sec) and 20 yard shuttle (4.44 sec). Baca also laid down an impressive 5.02 40 yd dash which was third amongst OL. These numbers earned praise from his O Line coach Adrian Klemm

And Baca had plenty of praise back at Klemm

Here are some highlights of what NFL.com said about Baca's strengths and weaknesses:

STRENGTHS As tenacious a blocker as there is in this draft class. Quick to recognize blitzes. Re-directs blitzers out of the hole, keeps his feet moving to take them away from the play. Shows awareness in assisting teammates in pass protection. Gets after his run target, attacks with a venom. Hustles to help his tackle prevent inside rushes...Good mobility to pull, gets around the line quickly and has the flexibility to adjust to inside defenders once through the hole. Fits on his second-level block well and engulfs the defender.

WEAKNESSES: Average height and size for an NFL offensive lineman. Stronger defenders can push him back with a power rush, and can use their superior strength to rip off blocks or control his upper body. Aggressiveness can backfire when overextending his punch, as he lacks great length to re-direct once he loses contact.

Bottom Line: He's purely a guard in the pros, and his presenting the sort of nastiness and intelligence will earn him a mid- to late-round draft selection, by a team that's willing to let him build up his functional strength.

Baca was a second team All Pac-12 choice this season, and has the advantage of having played every position on the offensive line in his Bruin career. Though he projects as an NFL guard, his versatility is a unique asset. That, along with his strong performance at the combine likely elevated him from an undrafted free agent to a late round draft pick, which would make Baca the first Bruin offensive lineman drafted in a long long time. Since Kris Farris in 1999, to be exact. And, no, no flags were thrown on Baca in Indianapolis. Shame on you for even thinking that.

There was a nice review on Baca by Stampede Blue, the Indianapolis Colts' SBN site. The Colts have a certain young QB and need to invest in a solid OL to keep Andrew Luck clean, and Baca's versatility and experience make him an attractive option for a team that has multiple needs along the front.

Joseph Fauria, Tight End - Overall grade 60.8

Big Joe is still big, even among the tight end prospects at the Combine, being the second tallest, and possessing the biggest hands, which is an important trait when you are trying to swallow up a leather ball with points on the ends of it. We know Joe's personality and leadership will also be attractive traits to NFL teams.

Fauria's participation at the Combine was limited from a groin injury that remains from the East-West Shrine Game so he didn't run or do the quickness drills, but he did do 17 reps on the bench. And he looked good doing it, of course!

From NFL.com:

STRENGTHS Long, athletic player who is an excellent red zone target because he can box out and have great reach for high passes. Possesses solid hands to catch away from his frame. Fluid runner who is a tough ask for linebackers to cover in the middle. Shows some short-area quickness to separate on double-moves and out cuts. Gets out of his three-point stance more quickly than expected given his size.
WEAKNESSES Very lean build. Flashes some balance and elusiveness after the catch but long legs allow defenders to wrap or trip him up easily. Struggles to get low blocking in-line or trying to hit targets in the open field. Will often be overwhelmed by defenders, struggles to stick on his block.
BOTTOM LINE... finally flashed the top-100 talent everyone knew he possessed in 2011 (39 catches, 481 yards, six touchdowns) by using his height, length and unexpected foot quickness to make plays around and over the top of defenders. He further demonstrated these qualities in 2012 en route to 12 receiving touchdowns. Fauria is an impressive red-zone threat due to his height and ability to box defenders out, but he is fairly unimpressive after the catch in the middle of the field. He also has more than his fair share of struggles as a run blocker.

I think this is a fair assessment from what we saw and heard about Big Joe this season. Fauria is relatively lean for an NFL TE, and will need to add some muscle to be an every down player run blocking on the end of the line. But his receiving skills are what will make him a middle-late round draft. He is a nightmare matchup for any defensive back or linebacker, and the NFL shifts to more spread formations, his ability to split out and isolate a defensive player make him an instant weapon.

Fauria had an unofficial meeting in Indy with the New England Patriots who know all about dangerous tight ends. Their star TE Rob Gronkowsi just underwent his third surgery for a broken arm, so maybe they know more than they are letting on.

The Cleveland Browns also scheduled a meeting with Fauria, and they are definitely in the market for a tight end. Another link to Cleveland for Joe is their new TE coach, Jon Embree, the recent CU coach who faced Fauria twice the last two years. Embree was also teammates with Joe's uncle, former long time NFL'er Christian Fauria.

Johnathan Franklin, Running Back - Overall score 72.3

Jet lived up to his billing with a blazing 40 yard dash time of 4.49, and a 60 yard shuttle time of 11.33 seconds. Both were in the top 5 for all RB's.

STRENGTHS One cut type of runner, who has impressive foot quickness, and the ability to explode out of his cuts. Presses the line before cutting to the play side and displays good vision and patience to find open running lane. Sees penetrating defenders, cuts after the handoff to avoid them. Vision on the outside and downfield is also good, can weave through traffic and his loose hips and quick feet allow him to cut inside the defensive back into open space. Not contact-shy, will take the A-gap and churn inside if he sees an opening. Runs hard, behind his pads, and displays good balance.
WEAKNESSES Won't overpower NFL defenders with the leaner build that lets them regularly trip him up on first contact. Ball security has been an issue for him (six fumbles in 2011), Pass protection skills are not up to snuff; he'll throw his body into an opponent at times, but his cut-block attempts often come up completely empty.
BOTTOM LINE Franklin had his best statistical year by far as a senior, and managed to clean up his fumbling issues. His speed, shifty hips, and one-cut ability will make him at least a nice NFL change-of-pace back.

I think the NFL's take underestimates Franklin in a couple of areas. Franklin impressed everyone at the Senior Bowl by being the best all-around RB, and showed very good pass blocking skills there. We also know that Franklin worked hard on his earlier ball protection issues and had just the one fumble this year on that cold wet crappy night at Wazzu, so I don't think that will be an issue going forward. Franklin got great reviews all around the internets:

NEPatriotsDraft.com thinks highly of Franklin

Passing Game
At the Senior Bowl he showed natural hands, catching everything away from his body and tracking the ball while on the run. Runs solid routes, with the ability to beat linebackers with his quickness. Very impressed with his ability in pass protection at Senior Bowl. Showed good power and leverage when attacking blitzers. Put his head in the chest of blitzing SAF and was able to slide with them. Showed very good playing strength and a powerful lower body in pass pro.

Intangibles/Leadership
Franklin is a very impressive person. He has outstanding character, has been involved in numerous charities off the field and wants to be an role model. Stated that he "wants to be the major of Los Angeles" and is absolutely serious about it. Works extremely hard off the field, was someone his teammates looked up to at UCLA. In interviews Franklin came off as very articulate, well spoken and bright.

Overview:
Due to his one cut and go ability Franklin is a good fit in a zone blocking system, where he can use his patience and vision. He can get to the edge and break the long run once turning the corner. His hands have started to develop and will be able to be a receiving asset in the passing game. Despite smaller frame and limited power, Franklin was the best RB in pass protection during Senior Bowl drills.

Overall, Franklin is one of the top seven running backs in the 2013 NFL Draft.

SBNation echoed praise based on Franklin's performance at the Senior Bowl, naming Franklin as one of the three players who clearly impressed. USA today also gave high marks to Johnathan Franklin (HT to GlueEater) as one of the top backs at the Combine, specifically citing him over some other high profile runners including Stanford's Stepfan Taylor. Packers.com named Franklin as one of the top two performers at the combine, and BengalsInsider.com (subscription site by Scout) included Franklin in a list of players Cincinnati should draft. ESPN listed Franklin as the second highest speed score, and ahead Oregon's speedster Kenjon Barner. We all saw Jet ripping off long runs this season to know he has great game speed and that breakaway ability is not a concern. In a draft that does not have any real standout RB's, look for Franklin to go in the 2nd or 3rd round as one of the first handful of running backs picked. (Please, Denver!! Please, Denver!!!)

Aaron Hester, Cornerback - Overall grade 55.0

We all saw Hester's struggles in pass defense during his U.C.L.A. career, and we all saw some signs of promise in his senior year, particularly as the year went on. He is still a question mark, however, as he brings great size to the position, but his 4.62 time in the 40 at the Combine was not impressive.

From NFL.com:

STRENGTHS Great frame for the position. Has long arms and strength. Good athlete. Appears to run well, and changes directions smoothly. Fluid in his hips. Also showcases enough lateral agility to stick with receivers. Aggressive run defender, attacks downhill and wraps up.
WEAKNESSES Doesn't have great ball skills. Will struggle to get his head turned. Lacks great acceleration moving forward, doesn't stop his feet and drive on the football as well as you'd like. A bit unrefined from a technique standpoint. Gets latched on to receiver blocks. Shows some difficulties in zone coverage.
BOTTOM LINE Hester has a great frame and is more fluid than most would think. He's a good all-around athlete and works well in man coverage. He needs to do a better job of finding and making plays on the football, but he should still be selected in the middle rounds.

Interesting that the NFL analysts note his unrefined technique. We all questioned how well Hester was coached up at U.C.L.A., and this seems to suggest that he didn't get taught much during his college career, certainly prior to this season.

Hester is the one Bruin who didn't really shine at the combine, with USA Today noting that his speed and agility were disappointing for a cornerback. However, better technique will help overcome some of that, and Hester's size remains his best asset. NFL teams will love his size when he is forced to match up against the big receivers seen in the league these days. While initially projected as a mid round pick, I think Hester probably falls to the later rounds before being selected, unless he can really impress at his Pro Day at U.C.L.A.

Datone Jones, Defensive Line - Overall grade 85.6

Datone was the Bruins' best prospect heading to the Combine, and he did nothing to hurt his chances. Jones pushed up #225 an impressive 29 times and combined that with a good 4.80 in the 40 yard dash. He displayed his great quickness with a 4.32 in the 20 yard shuttle, which was a top performer for defensive linemen.

STRENGTHS Versatile lineman that can fit in an odd or even front. Difficult for running backs to avoid him in tight quarters, keeps his feet moving while wrapping up. Shows surprising bend and agility to break down and make tackles in space and to contain when given that assignment. Gives chase to ball carriers outside the box when fresh. Churns toward the quarterback and keeps his hands active to encroach until the ball is away. Vocal leader on the field.
WEAKNESSES Must prove he can sit down in his stance and keep his butt down to get low or anchor against drive blockers. Forward lean can cause him to get off-balance at times, savvy veterans will rip him down to get him to the ground. Knocked off his pass rush route by a strong punch when lined up outside, also lacks great bend and agility to be an elite edge rusher or to redirect his path.
BOTTOM LINE He is very long, has good initial quickness/power, and plays with good pad level. He is versatile enough to play anywhere along the defensive line. Going forward, Jones needs to do a better job of anchoring, or disengaging once his initial surge is halted. However, his immense physical talent and extremely productive senior season should make him an early selection.

As NFL offenses are developing more spread formations and more athletic QB's are changing the game with the read option offense, defenses will start looking for more athletic D linemen, and fewer immovable blocks of lard. Those players are going to be obsolete and players like Jones with a great combo of strength and speed are the future. Jones is entering the NFL at the perfect time. This is a deep DE class, so look for Jones to go in the second half of the first round.

Datone is currently projected by CBSSports.com as a first round pick in the early 20's. Seattle looks to be targeting Jones hard with the 25th pick, and Seahawks coaches met with Jones individually both at the Senior Bowl where he played very well, and again at the Combine last week. I would sure hate seeing Datone playing for Cheatey Petey, who recruited Datone out of high school, but the Seahawks are a team on the rise and have a very good D line, so it could be a great opportunity for Datone. The SBN mothership sees this happening as well. Then again, Datone may not even be available to Seattle if Cincinnati nabs him at #21, as one of the CBS analysts projects.

The Patriots are drafting behind Seattle and may not get a shot, but they are high on him as well.

Overview:
Datone Jones is one of the top Defensive Linemen available in this year's draft. He possesses an NFL ready frame, with excellent playing strength and bulk...He has good quickness for his size, but his strength is his best tool. He plays with good leverage and is able to simply out muscle and overpower linemen.

At the Senior Bowl he showed much more violent hands which led to him being the most dominate defender in Mobile. Jones is still a bit raw as a pass rusher and will get better as he develops more pass rush moves. If needed he could add 10-15 pounds and move inside to 3-Tech...Jones is a high-character individual, overcoming tough surroundings and circumstances to become a top prospect.

He is a focused and driven person, understanding schemes and defensive philosophies very well. As a prospect Jones' combination of power, speed and pass rush potential will make him a top five defensive end prospect for the 2013 draft.

Jeff Locke, Punter/Place Kicker

Locke was invited to the Combine and participated in drills.

CBSSports.com has an analysis of Locke

Typically it is not a good sign when one of a team's top prospects is the punter, but after watching the Jacksonville Jaguars select another Pac-12 punter (Bryan Anger) in the third round in April, perhaps Bruins fans should be celebrating their own talented specialist rather than question what else may be missing on this roster. To be clear, I do not anticipate Locke to earn a draft selection as high as the former Cal standout Anger was selected. Locke, however, does possess the leg strength and versatility to potentially earn a draftable grade.

Because of his leg strength, Locke was sent out to attempt some long-distance field goals for the Bruins in 2011 and flashed enough success to potentially earn more consideration in this role down the road, nailing kicks from 49 and 51 yards against the Texas Longhorns. Considering his strong, accurate leg and the consistency he's shown over his career (44.58 career punting average ranks second in UCLA history) Locke could wind up as the top-rated punter in the 2013 draft, though as NFLDraftScout.com's rankings show, he'll have plenty of competition.

Analysis
Possessing a legitimate NFL frame for the position and a booming leg, Locke certainly looks the part. He's consistently been able to flip the field for the Bruins as a punter, ranking among national leaders in net punting throughout his entire career. The leg strength is perhaps even more noticeable on kickoffs, as he has had 55 touchbacks over his career.

Locke would have a bunch more touchbacks if we had been scoring points more regularly during his first 3 years, too.

And even though kickers really are football players, the NFL published data on just five of them, and Locke was not one of them. He is ranked the #4 punter by CBSSports.com, and was credited with a 4.82 40 at the Combine, which is pretty fast if you want him to fake a punt and run, or just to hurry off the field after another touchback.

So the lack of data is ok. We know what Locke can do. If any NFL teams want to quit covering kickoffs, Locke is, well, a lock. Punters and kickers rarely get drafted and typically compete for roster spots as a free agent, but Locke is the rare kicker who should get picked in the late rounds. His ability to handle the dual chores of punting and kickoffs gives teams the rare luxury of focusing on a field goal specialist who won't have to worry about long distance kickoffs. We can only hope that Locke becomes as prolific on and off the field as our other favorite NFL punter, Chris Kluwe

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